Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dreamation 2015: The Post-Con Summation

Note, I just posted this on G+, but for the handful of folks who follow me here and not there, here's a re-post.

First, much thanks to the folks I shared a room with: Mikael Andersson, Ephraim Gregor, Jeff Lees and the travelling Swedes, Angelika and Cristoffer Rusthoi. You were all cool people I was happy to spend time with and made what could have been a cramped situation instead pleasantly snug. Thanks especially for putting up with the hacking and sneezing from the cold I carried with me.

Thursday: I arrived just in time to catch the evening demo of All Quiet on the Martian Front in the Miniatures room, run by Joseph Johnson. I liked the WWI-era vehicle models and I’m a fanatic for anything inspired by War of the Worlds, but unfortunately I found actual game play terribly unbalanced; the single opposing Martian tripod barely suffered a dent as it speedily demolished my American tank squadron, plus a second squadron of reinforcements I was granted to try to make the game more satisfying. That’s definitely in the tradition of Well’s original story, but it’s not very interesting to play out in turn-by-turn inevitability.

Fun detail: in the fiction those tanks are all steam-powered, because gasoline engines and martian heat rays turned out to be too volatile a mix. 

Afterwards I jumped into a tournament of Pitchcar, a dexterity game where wooden pucks are competitively ricocheted by strategic finger-flicks around the twists, turns chutes and ramps of a three-dimensional track. In the three-lap race I finished very nearly last but enjoyed it all the same. Then, after a spot of video pinball, I called it a night.

Not pictured: scrambling under the table to find your car when you inevitably fling it off the track.

Friday: Up early to play Lasers & Feelings run by Alden Strock, a rare chance to experience one of John Harper’s super-elegant RPG designs as a player. I was “7-Krax-7”, the Android Pilot all about Laser-based solutions with an obsession for breaking speed records. Other players were the sexy Riker-esque scientist (played by sexy Riker-esque game designer Tim Rodriguez), the Savvy Engineer who achieved acting captain status via rock-paper-scissors, the Dangerous Doctor with a galaxy-sized moral blind spot and the somewhat reformed aspiring despot Alien Scientist. Our crew romanced giant crustaceans, fought pirates, broke the letter of Consortium law in the name of the spirit (and convenience of the moment), flew so fast we arrived before we departed and declared a war then surrendered in record time.

In the afternoon slot, I ran Stars Without Number for four players using my new “Sweetwater Shores” scenario. The PC’s landed their battered ship of dubious recent history at an anti-matter refinery / black market hub for desperately needed repairs and soon ran afoul of the various factions manifest in the station. Gang wars were started, psychic artifacts unearthed and the decadent ruling class ejected into deep space. A grand and satisfying time was had by all.

Of the two covers available, I prefer this one.

In the evening, I ran into the delightful Natalia Granger and played a couple of her fun demos of the card game Spellcaster. Then it was back down to the miniatures room to try Warmachine for the first time, presented by Kirk Brunstetter. A much more satisfying experience than the last mini game (my Cygnar warband maneuvered around the opposing Khador team until finally seizing an opening to take out their warcaster) followed by some interesting conversation about how the minis hobby is starting to change and diversify much like RPG’s did a few years ago.

Saturday: Up early yet again to jump into Questlandia presented by Evan Rowland. I and four other players (Evan chose to run this potentially GM-less session as a director rather than playing himself) brewed up a Kingdom set on a far-off planet largely ignorant of its ancient colonial origins. Technological remnants were viewed as magic, priestly orders maintained them but only those with noble blood (laced with hereditary nanotech) could actually operate the devices. But, the blood had degraded and now was spreading as a STD through the commoners and sending society out of balance. The personal drama between a traditionalist monk, the monk’s sickly heiress student trapped in a bio-suit, the heiress’s estranged courtesan, that courtesan’s relic-hunting brother and a amoral scientist (played by the same guy who was a amoral scientist in the Lasers & Feelings game) turned out to be the trigger that precipitated the collapse of the kingdom. Our legacies would be a bittersweet rise of survivor nations and teachings twisted by the centuries. I enjoyed the game and the world-building it spawned; I like any game where big sweeping setting construction is part of the fun (in fact I always feel a little deflated when such games step back down to the mere character-scale perspective). Still I think there are parts in Questlandia open to refinement. Some of the processes could be more elegant; there’s a lot of tracking bits. And I felt strain from maintaining a vast Kingdom-wide perspective while still playing a single mortal-scale character. I found myself wishing for Microscope’s approach of making up quick character’s relevant to the current situation, rather than having to keep justifying why my Bio-suited heiress kept pinging from one pivotal encounter after another. Still, I’ll happily play Questlandia in its current form again.

In the afternoon, I was back in the miniatures room again. I didn’t originally plan to keep sliding up to the battle tables, but there were always slots available at the minis games and I found the parlor-like atmosphere and craftsman’s attitude (as opposed to role-playing’s more Auteur-minded tone) refreshing. This time it was Bolt Action, WWII tank battles presented by Joseph Johnson. It was a fast-playing game, letting I and two other players march through four simple scenarios in under 90 minutes. Zipping my Allied Shermans down the streets of a North African village, trying to roll out of cover to blast German Tigers before they did the same to me was quite satisfying; it was also fun just playing with the large-scale, highly detailed tank models.

In the early evening, I decided to try out the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game for the first time (unfortunately, the program doesn’t tell me who was running it). I’d heard it described as a condensed role-play experience, and was curious to sample its appropriateness for some folks I know looking for an introduction to RPG’s. It didn’t really meet that expectation, it turned out to be mainly a cooperative scenario-beater with a lot of group tactics, resource swapping and some light deck-building and no discernable role-playing as I recognize the term. I still enjoyed the experience though, and got to play with 
Asphesteros Felleye, which I don’t get to do often enough.

In the late evening I was scheduled to run Blood & Bullets, a succinct Wild West RPG derived from Swords & Wizardry created by Simon Washbourne. I was really looking forward to this; I submitted the game largely on a whim, to bring exposure to a less well-known OSR game, but unexpectedly found a resonance with the frontier trappings and genre tropes while prepping. I was inspired to put some extra effort into prep, getting a reprinted 1890’s Montgomery Ward catalog to present to the players for gear ideas, and prepared a stack of home-bound rule booklets to give away. So I was crushed when, of the six sign-ups I had, only one actually showed. Of the five absentees, only one had the decency to cross their name off the sheet ahead of time (Kelly Vanda, who I sincerely thank for her conscientiousness). The other four manure-breathed bastards simply flaked out, leaving me to sit in growing agitation until finally at half-past start time with a still nearly empty table I called off the game. Barring they all died in the same car accident on the way to the con, I think what these four folks did is inexcusable. Not only does it waste my efforts, it cost the time of the one person who showed up expecting a table full of fellow players.

Advice: do not buy this Lulu print edition, go to the author's website and download the PDF, which has updates missing from the one pictured above:

Fortunately, Melissa Cohen happened along to soothe my rage and convince me the human race deserved to survive another day. At her suggestion, I tried out the LARP Top Secret Admirer presented by +Daniel Eison and had a pretty good time. Between that and Melissa’s boundless positive energy I got over my grump and ended the night in good spirits. (Melissa’s description of the game is far more thorough than I could manage; go read what she says about it in her Dreamation recap on G+.)

Sorry, its a LARP. They often don't have cover images. So here's some spy ponies on a date.

Sunday: Finally I got to sleep in a bit before checking out, sorting out luggage and forgoing morning gaming to make the rounds of the dealers and watch the drama of the auction. I even brought a stack of old games to sell, and was happily surprised to see all but one find a buyer.

For the last slot of the con, I ran Stars Without Number again. I’ve taken to regularly offering something for the final Sunday slot, because there always seems to be folks grateful for something outside the central Friday/Saturday rush, or who couldn’t make it for the rest of the con. I had four players, again in the “Sweetwater Shores” scenario, one of whom signed up because he enjoyed it so much when I ran SWN at the last con. Another player was a young lady entirely new to the OSR approach, who took to it with delighted enthusiasm. This was the fifth time I’ve run this scenario, and the first time I’ve seen a party deal with the challenges of Sweetwater station by agitating its economy. Heh.

This is the other cover. I like it less.

And after that, it was time to go home and finally start getting over my miserable cold.

Meeting & Greeting: I socialized plenty, but it came mostly as short conversations here and there, dozens of times over with one or two folks. Eating on the go and from my own bonter bag in the room, I didn’t have much call to go out for meals so missed the big meal-time convocations so many other’s have gushed about. Perhaps I’ll try to make those connections next con. I still got to see plenty of friends and familiar faces, and even got to chat a bit with John Stavropoulos after too long a gap since I last did that.

Swag Acquired: The one thing I planned to buy at Dreamation, the new edition of Monster of the Week was well and thoroughly sold out early, so I didn’t get to take that home. However, I still ended up with quite a stack of swag. On Thursday, someone put out a couple big boxes of free texts, from which I grabbed Sengoku, OSRIC and the old ICE Middle Earth Role-Playing corebook and two supplements, Creatures of Middle-Earth and Angus McBride’s Characters of Middle Earth. I’ve always had a mild curiosity for MERP and Sengoku, so its nice to finally check them out. And as an OSR-ian, I was required to pick up OSRIC eventually, so its good to have that finally sorted. At the auction, I picked up three boardgames, Musketeers, Frankenstein’s Children and Sewer Pirats all for a total of seven bucks. Don’t know a thing about them, but they’re all worth a try at that price. Saturday night, I collected my prize points, rediscovering that boardgames and mini games, especially ones with any sort of tournament structure, produce a lot more points than RPG sessions. I had enough points to snag Honor & Intrigue, a swashbuckling implementation of the Barbarians of Lemuria system, which I’ve been wanting to pick up for a while.  Finally on Sunday I picked up Gaean Reach, Robin Laws’ recent space adventure revenge game that combines elements of his Gumshoe and Skullduggery systems. It caught my eye because its succinct (108 pages at digest size) and I’m a long-time Jack Vance fan, on whose work the game is based. I also sprung for Everything’s Better With Monkeys, an anthology by C.J. Henderson, because … well, because I didn’t do that enough while that gentleman was still around.

So, that was my 2015 Dreamation. Now to start getting ready for Maelstrom.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Dreamation 2015: The Prologue

This weekend is Dreamation, a grand tabletop gaming convention in Morristown NJ. I am of course attending and running RPG's all weekend. For those unfamiliar with it, over the years it (along with its summertime counterpart Dexcon) has steadily grown from a local affair to the primary regional gaming extravaganza, attracting guests from across the country and across the world. Partially this is because it's been embraced by the Indie design scene, becoming a rallying point where hip new games get debuted and hip young designers mingle and commiserate.

It's like this, but with more beards and Doctor Who t-shirts.

I'm not an Indie designer. I'm not even a published game author (at least not yet) so when I see my modest offering of something straightforward like Tunnels & Trolls or MiniSix sitting on the schedule between the debut of the latest Indie Darling and a crackerjack game so innovative it challenges my notions of what a game even is, both being run by the people who wrote them ... it calls into doubt my comparative value as just a guy who's modestly good at traditional GM'ing.

But, I muddle along, and so far I get plenty of sign-ups, so there's still an audience for what I'm offering.

This year I'm continuing my Old-School streak by offering up a couple science fiction sessions of Stars Without Number (on the schedule as R240 Friday 2-6pm and R377 Sunday 3-7pm) and one experimental frontier session of Blood & Bullets (R334 Saturday 8-Midnight).  I say "experimental" because I haven't felt an affinity for the Western genre before, but B&B's succinct system delighted me enough that I thought it deserved some exposure. I'm even going to give away full home-bound rulebooks to all the players:

There's something so satisfying about making your own booklets.
In preparation I've been watching a lot of old Western films (check out Sam Raimi's The Quick & The Dead, it's totally under appreciated) and reading Jonah Hex comics. 

As a player, I'm hoping to get into Monster of the Week and Lasers & Feelings. I'm also due for a visit or two to the miniatures battle room. I wonder, does being a wargame fan threaten my Indie cred' even more?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Old School at the Old School

I've had business on West 57th street in Manhattan lately, around the Columbus Circle / Carnegie Hall area, and in doing so came across a pleasant surprise in front of the Art Students League of New York.

The building's facade is currently covered by restoration scaffolding, but the organization has seized the opportunity to turn the otherwise coarse metal columns into canvases for student murals. One of which (out of about ten in various styles) is a full comic about a typical party of fantasy adventurers!

(My apologies for the grainy images produced by my budget smartphone. And I'm afraid no more specific credit than "ASL Comics and Arts Students" was evident, and the hashtag #CreateArt@aslnyc.)

However, it occurs to me I should find this less surprising than I do. I'm still catching up with the unexpected growth of dungeon-delving imagery into the mainstream. The tropes of mixed adventuring parties, underground labyrinths, faux-medieval stylings, work-a-day magic-users and some very specific monster types (think about it: how many people outside of tabletop gaming even heard of a "Lich" fifteen years ago?) are now the subject of superbowl ads pitching casual gaming apps to the masses. So why shouldn't it be fit to stand next to Mucha and Lichtenstein as part of established pop-culture canon.

Theses boards are about seven feet tall, from floor to top.

Actually, lots of my adventures would've ended better if we all just went home half-way through.

Bards: managing failiure since 1st edition.

What does it mean that these kids think of the Mom as a high level soul-rending demon?

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Big Game: Battleball!

This past Sunday was all about The Game, so the wife and I prepared snacks, met up with some friends and all sat down ... for a bevy of boardgames and light conversation.

What? What else could I possibly mean?

A Triple H marathon is slightly more likely.

Mostly we all played Qwirkle and Galaxy Trucker, both of which are current darlings of Lena (and repeatedly humbling experiences ... Lena's natural talent for Qwirkle is the source of once-entirely-joking accusations of witchcraft that have shaded every deeper into real concern that spiritual authorities should be consulted).

Dear One, me and this officer of church law would like to have a serious conversation with you
about those three double-scores in a row.

However, since I'm not *entirely* pop-culturally ignorant, as a referential jape I also brought along Battleball. And to my surprise, people actually wanted to play it. Not for long, but its still more tolerance of my odd preoccupation for the old game than I dared hope for.

Yes, Battleball!

Battleball and me have a bit of a history. I don't know the conditions of its initial release, though I get the impression back in 2004 it was over-hyped, over-produced and pitched to an indifferent children's audience. My first copy, and initial awareness of the game's existence, was found just a few years ago in a thrift store. I'll take a chance on any game that's under five bucks and still has all its pieces. And oh such pieces this game had; it's just loaded with fun bits.

I believe my feelings upon opening the box is called "squueee!"

Including a metal sci-fi-football token and custom football-shaped six-sider. So charming.

And of course, 22 individual miniatures for two teams of cyborged-up grid-iron warriors.

The one on the far right is Myrna MacArthur, who's working the Battleball circuit to earn enough money to finish her astrophysics degree after corrupt corporate agents suppressed her research and sabotaged her scholarship.
At least according to my fan-fiction.
As toyetic as all these fun bits were, I found upon reading the rules that it was also an unexpectedly clever little game, even elegant. Its a shameless ameritrash dice-fest, reveling in luck and cartoon carnage, and as tactical challenges go definitely not as nuanced as Memoir '44 or even Ogre. But with just a handful of rules it creates a efficient miniatures skirmish game with interesting choices, moments of fun suspense and dramatic reversals.

And some of those rules are downright clever. Y'see how all the figures have color-coded bases? Those colors match up to the different die types, so when the red-based figure moves or attempts to tackle you roll the red d20, if it's the black-based figure then it's the black d8. When rolling for movement, the number rolled is the total spaces you may move, so high numbers are good, and figures attached to bigger die-types are faster. But (and this is the clever bit) in a tackle, lower numbers beat higher numbers, so that black d8 is rather likely to demolish the red d20. Fast but vulnerable versus tough but slow; figures differentiated in game abilities without any need for printed stats. I love that.

Its also nice and quick. Dispensing with nearly all the rules of actual football (Battleball is about as accurate a simulation of the NFL as Warhammer is of medieval strife), play continues until somebody gets a touchdown (which triggers a short refresh and redeployment) and the game is won by the first player to score twice. I doubt a full game will ever take more than an hour.

So, like I said, sweet find for five bucks.

The game has one big drawback: the play-space to players ratio is lacking. Its just a two-player game, but the board fills up a table.

There's enough room left to keep your Doritos or your beer out, not both.

Thus I have been politely advised not to bring this table-hogging thing to boardgame nights and conventions, limiting chances for casual play. However ... from the first, I realized Battleball is screaming for a tournament. Not just because its so theme-appropriate; the particular combination of simple rules, fast play and visual presence lends easily to four or more games going simultaneously in a double-elimination bracket where only one player can claim Ultimate Victory.

Its something I'd really like to run someday, and to that end over the years I've been grabbing copies whenever I come across them. And ... remember how I conjectured the game was over-hyped and over-produced? I get that impression because the game shows up a lot in thrift shops and at garage sales. So I've picked it up plenty of times. Currently, I've seven copies.

The only picture in this post not borrowed from BGG.
Yes that's a few of my game shelves in the background,
have fun trying to read the titles.
All in ambition of someday talking a dozen folks into wasting an afternoon striving to master a game intended for ages 8+, enticed with such prizes as a refurbished high school football trophy and maybe a ten dollar drink credit. For such glory, I do strive.

That's not my only lingering unsatisfied gaming obsession. Someday maybe I'll explain my desire to find some newbies to run through Griffin Island, or my plan to run Renegade Legion: Circus Imperium in a toga.